In these days of no trust

Students are rightly getting mad, but for the wrong reasons
Photo credit: BillyH

Universities are failing our young people more than ever.

I have always believed that there are some key parts of society where Britain can be proud to rank amongst the very best in the world. Our emergency services. Our armed forces. Our artists and musicians. Our scientists. Our legal system. And our educational establishments.

But, the last few months have not been good for higher education’s reputation in the UK. Recently, Channel 4’s investigative journalism programme Despatches went to town with an exposé of the expenses claimed by university vice chancellors.

The Guardian was not slow to voice its righteous indignation about the expenses claimed by vice chancellors that Channel 4 uncovered from a Freedom of Information Act disclosure:

But expenses are just the latest round in this ongoing reputational crisis. In recent months, as vice chancellors’ pay packets have become public knowledge, universities have been hard at work defending these on the basis that pay is set by independent panels and that these jobs involve the administration of large organisations with multi million pound budgets. Ironically enough, this is the same well-worn argument used by banks to defend their executive pay; that to attract and retain top talent, these people have to be paid huge salaries.

The UK’s higher education institutions are facing a crisis of trust. And for every criticism, come  denials, rebuttals and rationalisations.

But vice chancellors' pay is not why higher education is in crisis…

In the UK, universities have become corporatised and politicised. Higher education is now funded mainly by student debt. It is this debt which has enabled the massive (over) expansion of higher education and salaries for those at the top. This debt is gilt-edged because it is underwritten by the government. But as debt has a tendency to do, it is now spiralling out of control:

Yet universities are still significantly funded from the public purse. This means they are morally accountable to the public. And the public doesn’t like what it sees.

Personally I do not consider that a chauffeured car for a busy vice chancellor is unreasonable. Neither is extensive overseas travel. Nor is entertaining key contacts at top restaurants. Not when we consider the potential gains which can be made. So I think Channel 4 and the Guardian are picking the wrong fight here.

But to students and the public alike, these things reek of self-interest, of corruption, of a loss of moral compass. The problem is not one of defensibility, it is one of perception and trust.

Vice Chancellor’s salaries and expenses are the wrong target…

…because this is not the problem, merely a symptom of it. The real problem is that our higher educational institutions have become more detached than ever before from the very reason for their existence. Rather than facilitating young minds to investigate, question and reason about the world, they have adopted a new raison d’etre, namely the brainwashing of their charges to eliminate ideas which for any reason they find unlikeable or politically unacceptable.

Free speech within university campuses is now actively policed so that only those who support approved ideologies are given a voice. Anyone who might potentially challenge those views is kept out. No platform for them. Worse, if they even set foot on campuses they risk verbal and even physical assault by masked and hooded representatives of the student body, as Conservative MP Jacob Rees-Mogg discovered recently. One of the most articulate, rational, reasonable, courteous and unthreatening MPs you will find, he was jostled about while masked students screamed ‘Bigot’ at him.

Even his political opponents such as Shadow Education Secretary Angela Raynor, condemned his treatment by the thugs:

Such shenanigans are not new. Students have always tended to the left in their politics. What is new is that universities have built walls to keep out anyone who might challenge their new and incongruous positions as both guardians of knowledge and huge money making machines. Anyone who might engage them in civilised debate. And anyone who might, heaven forbid, question their self-appointed ownership of moral as well as educational authority.

So instead of exposing young minds to diverse thinking about the world, campuses are erecting barriers to some ideas. All ideas should stand or fall on their own merit, not be whitewashed because they are banned. Or because someone might find them offensive for whatever reason.

But all of this is a sideshow. It is an aspect of education; it is not what education should be fundamentally about. Education should be preparing the next generation to embark on successful careers, and by so doing, enriching themselves and the whole of society. The hard truth is that higher education should be pushing our GDP, trade surpluses, and household incomes higher.

Yet the reverse is happening. The output of universities in the form of worried young graduates, is creating a new class of disenfranchised and impoverished young people whose disproven faith in their educational investment has led them not to the beginning of glittering careers, but instead to the hell of internships, zero-hours contracts and low paid service jobs in a gig economy.

So we have more young people than ever questioning quite rationally whether they really want to take on £50k of debt, when they have little confidence that they will find a good job after graduation. We have employers moaning about the low quality of recent graduates. We have current students demoralised by the paucity of tuition hours. We have professors not teaching but spending most of their time working on research and academic papers, while the actual teaching work is sub-contracted to poorly paid visiting staff. And we have highly politicised campuses which tolerate only those with the 'correct' political point of view.

Higher education in the UK displays all the elements of a classic bubble about to burst…over inflated and debt-funded revenues, self-indulgence by those at the top, emerging scepticism about sustainability, denial of the problem.

And most telling of all, the collapsing of trust. This is the real betrayal of our young people’s lives and prospects. Bubbles always burst when trust evaporates. And trust ebbs fastest when denial is strongest.

Zuckerberg snatches victory from the (false) teeth of his nemeses

The disarming face of the man who sold the world.
Credit: Lukasz Porwol

By Neil Patrick

Zuckerberg's triumph of timidity signals no change soon.

Tuesday this week was billed as the ultimate showdown between the analogue world and the digital. A colossal Congressional panel (average age 62) deployed to call to account a small and nervous looking 33 year old boy called Mark Zuckerberg.

The old media delighted in the spectacle; Zuckerberg is the embodiment of their nemesis more than any other. This boy and his Facebook money making machine have humbled their own media empires and taken billions of dollars worth of advertising revenues that in decades past would flow unchallenged to them.

In my last post about this I opined that politicians and the legal system would be wrong footed and far too slow to act to remedy the distortions of power that Facebook has created in our society. And that a multi-billion dollar business like Facebook could easily resist the challenges from a bunch of old people who have only the faintest grasp of how the digital age is turning their world on its head.

Over the course of Tuesday and Wednesday’s hearings, we could watch Facebook’s share price react in real time to the questions and Zuckerberg’s fielding of them. He may have needed a booster seat to get his arms on the table, but during the course of the hearing, Facebook’s market cap increased by $4bn.

Not a bad financial outcome for an event which had the potential (a now totally disproven theory)  to send Facebook's market value into collapse. The markets never lie about confidence. The irony was that Zuckerberg's obvious nervousness and expressions of contrition, inspired and revitalised market confidence. But it wasn't so much that he played a blinder as that his army of opponents couldn't even see the ball, let alone run with it.

The politicians lost massively on points. There were some entertaining moments such as when Mr Z was asked if he would like to disclose the hotel he stayed in last night, or the email addresses of the last people he had sent emails too. These were smart and meaningful questions, but they did nothing to address the critical and fundamental matters of what and how Facebook would change in future.

Zuckerberg deflected many questions by kicking the can down the road with responses such as ‘ I don’t know, but I’ll get my people to come back to you about that’. This is hardly a confidence inspiring answer, but the markets reacted with relief because it was a sure sign that Facebook was more likely to survive with cuts and bruises than fatal injuries.

Zuckerberg had prepared intensively for the hearing with a team of consultants and lawyers grooming him so that instead of his robotic and hollow sounding delivery of norm, he conveyed a humility and likeability that seemed to charm some senators. They reacted like indulgent parents, wooed by the contrition of a wayward child.

But I didn't buy any of it. This is a man whose outward appearance of geeky frailty conceals a mind which is entirely committed to the exploitation for his commercial gain of any and every human weakness, whether we are a leader of government or a dishwasher in Detroit. In that sense, his mission is truly egalitarian.

He was able to duck answering questions he didn’t like. His preparation and the ignorance of his interrogators ensured that none were able to press him to the point where he became visibly uncomfortable.

But despite his appearance and demeanor, Zuckerberg is not a child and neither is he undergoing a transformation from inadvertent miscreant to redeemed character. He, by design and no small amount of luck, leads one of the most valuable business enterprises on earth. He is at the helm of a business which enables digital lawlessness more than any other. 

His preparation and demeanour of vulnerability successfully blunted the assault of an array of America’s most senior and powerful people, because they were completely under equipped to effectively challenge him. Most displayed a complete void in their understanding of how the internet works, let alone how Facebook works.

The format of the hearing didn't enable any genuine insight. Every time it got even half-way relevant, such as when South Dakota senator John Thune asked about the technical and linguistic difficulties involved in programming AI bots to discern hate-speech, the exchange was abruptly terminated as each successive legislator ran up against their four-minute time limit. Their world and Zuckerberg’s are so different as to be unable to communicate effectively. That is no fault of Zuckerberg’s; it is the fault of a generation of leaders who have comprehensively failed to keep in touch with the world they are supposed to be leading. The tragic irony here is that both politicians and social media claim to be all about open communication and building a better world.

These increasingly unrelated world views retain one common aspiration; the building and protection of wealth and power. And now these two worlds are in collision. Those with directly vested financial interests in Facebook sensed this was a stalemate and were thus relieved of their deepest fears. The markets could see this event was now unlikely to damage their financial interests and that their investment was no longer looking as shaky as it did just a week ago.

That Zuckerberg and Facebook should triumph in this encounter proves I think that the power held by the owners of digital real estate is unlikely to be dented anytime soon. Or at least not until government gets to understand what their role is in a digital world.

Prepare yourself accordingly.

Cambridge Analytica: Datakreig is upon us

Photo Credit:  Bundesarchiv, Bild 101I-646-5188-17 / Opitz / CC-BY-SA 3.0

The new Agents of Fortune have emerged from the shadows

In the summer of 1940, the Nazi Blitzkreig overran the whole of Western Europe. Blitzkreig was a revolution in warfare. It used the concentration of forces, speed and communications to outwit the bigger and better armed allied powers of Western Europe. I use the word ‘speed’ advisedly; German troops used a lot of amphetamines, but that’s another story. Great Britain and France had prepared for a traditional war. They were outwitted and outmanoeuvred at every turn.

Over seventy five years on and Datakreig is on the rampage. The Cambridge Analytica and Facebook scandal has remarkable similarities to the 1940 Blitzkreig. It represents a revolution in how power is acquired and disseminated (or more likely sold) by a new breed of digital data warriors. With or without the use of amphetamines, they are running rings around a complacent and out of touch old media, government and judiciary.

Yesterday I observed how this scandal was unfolding and how the public were reacting. Most used the situation to voice their political prejudices, citing this case as proof of the correctness of their viewpoints. In my opinion:

The fact that the now ex-CEO of Cambridge Analytica, Alexander Nix went to Eton is not evidence of a global elite intent on enslaving the rest of us.

The (big) dent in Facebook's share price doesn’t mark the beginning of the end for the big digital media firms.

The fact that Facebook holds an immense amount of personal data is not a crime IF it is gathered fairly and transparently and only shared with our full knowledge and explicit consent.

Nonetheless, there is something deeply unsettling emerging here. Lines must be drawn. But where?

Use of our individual and personal data for political purposes is unacceptable in a democracy

The way that the Trump campaign used social media data would be recognised and well understood by any marketing specialist or military strategist. But this doesn't make it acceptable within the political process.

Better intelligence and targeting than your competitors or rivals provides a serious tactical advantage. And Cambridge Analytica’s strategy worked better than probably even they had expected. A previous attempt to use it with Republican nominee Ted Cruz had disappointing results. Nonetheless Cambridge Analytica were surely not exactly grief-stricken having pocketed $5.8m in fees for this work.

The pooling and utilisation of personal data in this way is probably at least tacitly accepted by social media users as a fair exchange if it is just being used for advertising products and services. Irritating perhaps, but a reasonable price to pay for an essentially free platform. After all, most people would accept that old media advertising is fair and reasonable, provided it can be clearly identified for what it is, ie. not cloaked within editorial content.

But politics is not about commerce. It is about power. And personal digital data is not old media. It is or should be private. When our data is being passed to political groups, a line is crossed. Yet Cambridge Analytica may well not have broken any laws however unacceptable their actions may be – because the law is completely out of step with the nature and pace of the digital revolution. If and when legal actions and government interventions occur, we can fully expect that by the time they are enacted, the game and its tactics will have moved on.

This is a very unequal struggle

Data regulators are not adequately empowered to act independently of the judiciary. The UK Data Commissioner has a team of ten people working on this case. That’s ten UK civil servants with their hands tied behind their backs vs. a corporation with total assets in 2017 of $84billion.

The power and capital amassed by Facebook is more than monopoly power; FB had a revenue of $40.6bn in 2017, which is greater than the entire GDP of many countries.

Because the UK Data Commissioner cannot raid premises without a court order, the whole world knew they intended to examine Cambridge Analytics' servers long before they actually gained access. Facebook on the other hand entered Cambridge Analytica's premises on Monday. We can conjecture that both Facebook and CA will have erased without trace any evidence of possible malpractice long before the civil servants arrive.

And it has now emerged that Cambridge Analytica used ProtonMail accounts set to self-destruct without trace within two hours of being delivered. This fact alone suggests that they were intent on establishing a cloak of secrecy over everything they did. There will be no paper trail here…

Remember though that the whistle blowers have a deeply vested interest

The media forces which have ranged themselves against the new agents of fortune are the old agents of fortune. The New York Times, the Observer and Channel 4 Television News. The old guard are used to having the power to influence events. Usually in favour of their own proprietors' political and business allegiances.

So we should also recognise that the whistle blowers are not without their own motives. Old media has been losing billions in revenues to digital platforms for years. They have tried every trick to get in step with the digital revolution and have mostly failed. The Cambridge Analytica situation is possibly the best news old media has received in years. They can fully expect that in the coming weeks and months their digital nemeses will likely have their wings seriously clipped.

Datakreig deploys pace and opaqueness to assure its goals are accomplished

Tech knows it can easily exceed the pace at which government and regulators can respond. Digital media owners know that their opaqueness, resources and pan-national organisations make them able to out run and out gun regulatory controls.

Cambridge Analytics represents a new revolutionary guard. Whether they acted legally or not is a moot point. Data regulations and enforcement are hopelessly out of step with digital media. The big digital media firms can afford the best lawyers and tech heads to ensure the not very digital regulators are outwitted at every turn. Just like blitzkrieg, they use speed and camouflage to leave the forces of justice choking in their dust.

If we wish to live in a democracy, we can and should demand that legal lines are drawn over how our personal data can be used. Government action requires though that we wait for their painfully slow next moves. I'd venture that a much more effective response is to vote with our consciences, our smartphones and our wallets...

For my views on Mark Zuckerberg's Congressional hearing click here

Why doing more social media is a dumb strategy

By Neil Patrick

Because it's not how big your numbers are, it's what you do with them that counts.

I think this year will mark a turning point for social media platforms. It’s a perfect storm which has been brewing these last couple of years. Consider this:

Teens are leaving Facebook in their millions. Why? Because their parents are there and they don’t want to be seen in the same place, or have Mum and Dad see what they are saying or doing. (‘twas always so right?) They are also fed up with online bullying, sexual predators and relentless advertising. The selfie generation are choosing to make their social networks private not public. So they have migrated to Instagram, WhatsApp and other platforms where they can retain privacy.

Brands are failing to get the leverage on social media they aspired to because they bought into the myth (literally investing billons) that social media would enable them to build a huge audience of committed followers for a fraction of what they were spending on old media. It didn’t work because old media advertising methods don’t work on social platforms where trust and affinity is created more by listening and engaging with people than telling them stuff about you.

The platforms themselves are under increasing pressure from the public and regulators alike to stamp out the activities of the undesirables, everyone from ISIS terror cells to child groomers and political extremists. In doing so, many people who express politically 'unacceptable' sentiments are getting their accounts suspended, while the real villains duck, dive and re-emerge under new names as soon as they are shut down. This builds resentment and alienation amongst people who place value on free speech.

Meanwhile the earnings by the platforms are in many cases getting nowhere near the level they need to achieve a sustainable business. Twitter made $91m profit in the fourth quarter of 2017 on revenue of $732m. The first quarter in their 12 year history they have made any profit at all. The market responded positively to this news, but I see little prospect of this being a mark of turnaround, because new users are not growing. Meanwhile operating costs look likely to increase as they have to apply more resources to regulating user activity. 

We are fast reaching social media saturation. For every PewDiePie millionaire teen YouTuber there are thousands of other wannabes. And the queue is growing every month. Just last week I encountered a YouTube star called Huw who has become the number one most followed YouTuber on organic vegetable growing. Huw has 75,000 channel subscribers. Building this following has taken him 6 years. And he’s earned just £12,000 from his success. That’s an average of just £2,000 a year, or £166 a month. Huw is a young man however and I am sure he'll succeed in his career. It's just that it won't be on YouTube.

Social media is starting to come of age and in maturity, the holes and shortcomings are coming into plain sight. The myths are being outed.

The myth for business users that creates the greatest damage I think is that success is rooted in big numbers. This is a case of the platforms believing their own hype. This deception carries right through to the analytics they provide to users. Look at your Facebook, or Twitter or Pinterest analytics and you’ll see what I mean. They focus on short term numbers – the last day or week or month. They also encourage us to strive to constantly get bigger numbers. More followers, more shares, more comments. More is always better right? No it’s not actually.

It is for the platforms because this increases the money they can charge advertisers. For content creators it’s a pyrrhic victory however. Why? Because whilst having 100,000 subscribers is great if you are a YouTuber, that audience creates (a smallish) ad revenue stream for you. But 100,000 Twitter followers counts for very little. 50,000 LinkedIn connections? Meh.

Just like the platforms themselves, the investment of work, time and money to achieve anything resembling a commercial success is just too high. And the hurdles are getting ever higher as the competition for eyeballs grow exponentially as more and more people pile in.

If you are using social media as part of your business strategy, the time has come to get real and face up to reality. Social media is still here and it is still powerful. But only if you go about it in the right way. Here are the things I think we should face up to:

A thousand or ten thousand or a million connections have no value in and of themselves. Sure they might make you feel good, but if they are not in some way making your business more valuable, they are worth almost nothing. If you see success as simply making these numbers bigger, you are chasing the wrong goal.

No one cares what you do. What they care about is WHY you do it. This is why most businesses large and small struggle to get social media working for them. Because what they do is simply to make profit for shareholders. ‘Buy my stuff because it’s great’ has no currency on the social web.

But we have a nice mission statement. So what? Does that mission live and breathe in everything everyone does everyday? And does it make people want to help you? 

The only way to have people care about us is to show we care about them. This means that we listen more than we speak. That we talk about what people care about – and usually that is not ourselves. And that we demonstrate our care for them through our online actions more than our words.

So a million follows or likes or whatever might be the result of years of effort. But it’s worth nothing unless it delivers a return. That return on investment is also set to decline. Unless we rethink what we stand for and why anyone else would give a s**t.

What non-marketers should know about the state of marketing today…

By Neil Patrick

There’s a whole generation of marketing folk faking it...

This post is about the state of marketing in the 21st century. This is something I care deeply about because marketing has been my career for my whole adult life.

To be frank, I am concerned about the condition of my profession. Mark Schaefer, one of my favourite marketing gurus, cited the subtitle of this post in his excellent Grow blog late last year:

"Every CMO I talk to tells me they can’t find the right people to fill marketing jobs. And yet, I have a lot of friends having trouble finding a job. The disconnect is in the skills gap.

Keith Weed, the CMO of Unilever, claimed in an interview that there is an entire generation of marketers who are “faking it” and called for an overhaul of the marketing function.

Marketing titans like P&G acknowledge that their biggest brands are struggling to find relevance and, over the last few years, fired thousands of marketing professionals who aren’t keeping up.
The truth is, the marketing jobs are out there but CMOs can’t find the RIGHT skill sets they need to fill them and this is creating a true employment crisis."

I am sad to say that I agree. Marketing has always been a profession which is misunderstood by those outside it. But worse, today, it's now also a conundrum to some people within it.

The reasons are complex, but one of the main drivers is the pace of change brought about by the transition to a digital economy. This change is so rapid and profound for marketing that whole new skill sets are required. And few marketers are keeping up.

I am fortunate to know a great many senior and excellent marketing people. But even these folk, despite their impressive resumes are struggling to keep up with the pace of transformation.

I also know or know of others who at best are fudging it and at worst being downright deceitful about how they can help their employers and clients achieve their goals.

You’ve probably heard the idea, star of a thousand social media memes, that we should 'fake it until we make it’. Sadly this idea seems to have taken hold amongst some marketing people.

According to the very brief Wiki page, ‘fake it until you make it’…

“…is an English aphorism which suggests that by imitating confidence, competence, and an optimistic mindset, a person can realize those qualities in their real life. It echoes the underlying principles of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) as a means to enable a change in one's behavior.

In the 1920s, Alfred Adler, a disciple of Sigmund Freud, developed a therapeutic technique that he called "acting as if". This strategy gave his clients an opportunity to practice alternatives to dysfunctional behaviors. Adler's method is still used today and is often described as "role play". 

So the origins of this idea are highly specific; it’s a cognitive therapy for people with mental illness. Which is a very different thing to ubiquitous career best practice.

No. Just No. (Sorry Steven)

And if you are a marketing professional or aspire to be one, I'd venture that such a mindset is downright dangerous for you, your business and the reputation of your profession.

The trouble is that some people have got much better at faking it than they are at delivering the goods. And in an age where change is so rapid, the people who hire marketing people unless they are marketers themselves are easily misled by the all the jargon and persuasive patter.

If you hire or engage with marketing people, but are not one yourself, here’s my top 10 things I think you should know:

1: Successful digital marketing doesn't hinge on search engine optimisation (SEO). 

Because ranking high on Google does nothing to increase customers’ love for your brand, product or service. It’s just good housekeeping. No more no less.

2: Unless you’re an online retailer, selling things from your website is not the be all and end all.

It is people's obsession with turning their online presence directly into £s which distorts and corrupts their vision about how presence should be designed. And it leads to pop-ups, sign ups, redirects and other irritations which alienate the very people we want to love us.

For many products and services, the only time people will visit your website is to check you out. As often as not, those people will not be potential customers, they will be real competitors. For some businesses, a traditional website is actually a handicap. And the best website in the world is not going to help you unless people find something there to make them love you.

3: Social media enables you to build a tribe of loyal supportive followers. 

It can. But only if you have a strategy which gives your prospective customers something they want to engage with. And which integrates your social media with the rest of your business. Social media is not a digital advertising platform, despite Twitter and Facebook telling us that advertising with them will turbocharge our business. (Hint: they have their own agenda…).

4. An effective social media presence for your product or service must differentiate you.

It is pure folly to look at who has the most YouTube subscribers, or Twitter followers or Facebook likes and copy them. Because the chances are, they are not your role model and don’t know what they are doing either. 'Me too' might be the latest trendy hashtag, but as a marketing strategy, it's a non-starter.

5. Young people who have spent the whole of their (brief) adult lives using social media are not automatically experts on using it for marketing.

They are just familiar with the platforms as a user. This is not without some value, but it is limited. It’s like appointing someone as a car designer just because they know how to drive.

6. Marketing and advertising agencies are hideously expensive.

There’s a reason big agencies have plush offices and slick sales people. And it’s not because they are experts at what they do. It's because they are experts at extracting money from clients who should know better. This industry 'norm' evolved in an age when big TV and press campaigns and media commissions made a fortune for agencies as well as media owners via opaque cartels. They continue to do this because when their marketing clients are under-skilled, they can still be bamboozled.

7. There's a whole new wave of online influencers that are potentially more valuable to you than Kim Kardashian (probably)

If you look at YouTube, only three of the top 500 most subscribed channels are brands (Time Warner, Disney and Sony Music). The other 497 are people with little or no marketing budget, no big teams of advisors and little in the way of help. What they do have is passion, persistence and a love for what they do. They are in marketing speak, ‘authentic’. This authenticity and focus means they are accruing ever more power and influence. And they are the people who will make or break your brand online.

8. Marketing, Advertising, Social Media and and Sales are not the same thing.

Business owners often conflate these. In essence, marketing is how you create preference for your brand versus your competitors. Advertising is how you build awareness and interest in your products. Social media is how you connect with and build relationships with the people that matter to you. Sales is how you monetise that interest. Mixing these up creates truly horrible outcomes.

9. There are no shortcuts to building a world-beating brand. 

It takes consistent effort, month in month out. And if you are unclear about how what you do is different from your competitors, and cannot articulate that difference in an engaging way, you will have a hard time using digital (or any other media) to grow your business.

10. The digital age requires a transformation in marketing thinking way beyond anything that has gone before.

And this is why so many marketing professionals are struggling to keep up. It demands that the very ideas of how businesses grow are completely reinvented. There is very little from the traditional tactical marketing toolkit, which has currency today.

I’d urge every business owner to ask themselves this about their marketing: “Why and how will we make people love us online?” Answer that question successfully, and you will be better placed than most to get to the forefront of the digital marketing revolution.

Oh and keep your fake antennae in a state of permanent alertness…

Finally if your marketing person or people are doing a fabulous job for you, I'll be happy to hear about it in the comments. They do exist and deserve the attention we reserve for endangered species...


By Neil Patrick

A cautionary tale for interviewers - we reap what we sow, especially if we treat people badly.

This post will give you a smile if you have been rejected following a job interview. It shows how an interview can expose the interviewer's shortcomings just as much as the candidate's.

I was recently told this story by a candidate for an internal promotion at the firm she worked for. It was a panel interview with the the head of department, prospective line manager and an HR person.

The line manager was cocky. Her approach was to pile overbearing pressure onto the candidates. Her tone was brusque, interrupting frequently and generally trying to unsettle the applicants. Every candidate said it was the most traumatising interview they had ever had. One left in tears.

Part of this interviewer’s ‘technique’ was to probe every answer ad nauseum.

At one point, the interview went like this:

Line manager: “If you were appointed into this role, what would you do to reduce the gossip and rumouring amongst your team?”

Candidate: “I’d make it a team meeting agenda item and make it plain to my team that this is unacceptable because it creates all sorts of damaging consequences for the firm and potentially their own career progression”.

Line manager: "How do you know that would work? And why have you not done this already?"

Candidate: "Well I did have a discussion with my team about it, and they understood and it has noticeably lessened the problem."

Line manager: "So why have you not spread this to the rest of the company?"

Candidate: "Well that is above my pay grade."

Line manager: "But if this has been successful with your team why would you not want to share this with your peers?"

Candidate: "I think it should be endorsed by you first."

Line manager: "But this is the first time I have heard about this. Why didn’t you tell me about it?"

Candidate: "I did. I sent you an email."

Line Manager: "I never saw it."

Candidate: "When you didn’t reply, I sent it again. Twice."

Line Manager (visibly irritated): "Well send it to me again and I will look at it."

She didn’t get the promotion allegedly because another candidate who was judged to deserve the promotion more than she was offered the role.

But her feedback said she had performed well at interview and that she would be given the next available managers job when it became available.

A good interviewer doesn’t bully or pile on pressure. They probe without menace. They need every candidate to perform to the best of their ability, not the worst.

This isn’t the last time this sort of interview will happen, but maybe, just maybe, this person will wind their neck in a bit from now on...

The gig economy good or bad? Either way, it’s a life changer…

Not fitting in is quite possibly your greatest strength...

By Neil Patrick

Actually it’s a case of angels and demons…

First the demons:

What do you think of when someone says ‘gig economy’? Perhaps it's Uber drivers. Or zero hours contracts. Or people selling their services on Fiverr.

It’s true that these are all aspects of the gig economy. But they are not THE gig economy. I don’t even like the term. I much prefer the expression coined by a friend of mine, Laura Degiovanni at TiiQu. She describes something she elegantly terms, ‘the fluid workforce’.

The fluid workforce describes the aspiration of businesses and skilled workers alike to shift from permanent employment in jobs, to a flexible pool of people which adapts and evolves more quickly to better fit the ever changing requirements of organisations.

This is a natural and logical reaction to a world where change is forever accelerating. Contracts are specific and time bound. And pay is often higher than it would be for a permanent position, because many or all of the overheads of a traditionally contracted full time employee are absent.

At least that’s the theory. The reality for most gig economy workers however is that the unscrupulous have been faster to adopt this new idea than larger and more established organisations. The latter are rarely at the forefront of change because they are more complicated organisations and want more checks and balances. So they are moving, just not very fast.

The myth of tech and a better society

Here’s the rub - the mainstream Uber-teched gig economy is something which does very little to enable most people to prosper. It’s currently more like the bottom rung of the labour market. One where long hours, harsh terms of employment and tedious jobs are the norm. And if you work at Uber, according to whistle blowers, you can add gender inequality, sexual harassment and bullying to that list.

I have never met anyone who said to me, “I love being in the gig economy because I am so well paid”. Much more likely is that the positives they will regurgitate are based around the PR about flexibility and freedom. That’s fine if your earnings are not that important to you. But last time I checked, most people regard pay as a pretty important thing.

NOT my idea of career fulfillment Photo credit:

The Ubers, Fiverrs, AirBnBs like to describe themselves as disruptors. Radical rethinkers who are applying technology to build a better world for everyone. I don’t think of them in that way at all. I see them as micro-chipped buccaneers who are busy making a killing on the backs of low pay and sometimes even no pay. And thanks to their global internet-based business models, also able to dodge the usual obligations around everything from fair pay and conditions, to transparency and tax.

They don’t get investors buying in because of their radical and visionary improvement of the world. Those days disappeared after the 2000 dotcom bubble burst. Investors buy in because they see growth and profit potential; and if labour costs are low, the profit potential is high for whoever can secure sector dominance.

Low pay is not the only exploitative characteristic involved

Why pay little when you can get work done for free? Every time you post a review on Trip Advisor  about that restaurant or bar you just visited, you are doing their work for them. You might think it doesn’t take much time and you want to tell others so they know about your good or bad experience. But multiply this by a few thousand or million and suddenly, this amounts to a pile of free content acquired for absolutely nothing. Day after day after day...

Cheap and convenient means someone else suffers. Photo credit: LavaBaron

It echoes the old wave of self-service tech at the supermarket, petrol pumps, bank cash machines. These are all ways businesses have found to cut the cost of their services by getting us do their work for them – and it’s easy enough to persuade us to embrace the change when it delivers greater convenience for us.

So the gig economy is fast becoming in many people’s minds a place where career dreams are at best put aside, or at worst permanently laid to rest. But it doesn’t have to be like this…

Now for the angels

I don’t want to come over entirely negatively about this. There are some little niches of joy amidst all this low pay and mind numbing labour. I was recently working on a client assignment for a musical equipment manufacturer. Drums to be specific.

They wanted to upgrade their digital media and marketing strategies. I started looking at YouTube videos posted by drummers and drum manufacturers and compiling data about the views and subscribers. What emerged was that just like every product sector from cosmetics to fashion, cars to gardening, the biggest brands were being completely outgunned online by what I call the ‘boys (and girls) in bedrooms’.

In fact only three corporations rank amongst the biggest 500 YouTube Channels* Despite the multi-million budgets and expensive marketing consultants and agencies, the biggest brand in the drumming sector had less than 10% of the YouTube subscribers that the most successful YouTube drummers had. This is a pattern which we see in just about every sector and every market.

The social media stars are not brands, they are people like you and I

This is a very different gig economy. One where people earn handsomely for doing something they love. And I am part of this as are many other people I know. Most however would never describe themselves as working in the gig economy. But that doesn't mean we are not.

A friend of mine has built a successful and very well paid career as an after dinner speaker and stand up comedian. He's found his niche and has a fully booked diary every week of takers all happy to pay him several thousand pounds for him to do a turn at their dinner or event.

Another friend of mine is an accomplished voice over artist. Their client list is global and includes some of the best known brands in the world. The work is highly paid and is so much in demand that this person is seriously thinking about quitting their 'proper' job so they can do this full time.

Journey found their frontman on YouTube
 Photo credit: Bob Larson/Contra Costa Times

In a more high profile example, the platinum selling band that is Journey found the replacement for their departed singer Steve Perry on YouTube. Perry’s replacement was a man called Arnel Pineda, an unknown singer from the Philippines, who had been posting his covers of Journey songs on YouTube.

These are all tales from within what we could call the gig economy. These gigs are potentially life changing for the better. Others are a return to Victorian workhouses.

In my next post about this, I’ll venture some thoughts about how we can fly with the angels rather than be devoured by the demons...

*Disney, Time Warner and Sony

Carillion reveals the real threat to jobs - debt

By Neil Patrick

The Yas Viceroy Abu Dhabi Hotel built by Carillion. Photo credit:Rob Alter

When I started work on my book with Marcia LaReau, Careermageddon, we did not have an agenda. Our view was that the evidence will take us where it will.

But after three years research, even I was surprised where we ended up as we sought to discover the real destroyers of jobs.

Careermageddon is a politically neutral book. The conventional ‘wisdom’ about jobs from the left is that government must borrow and spend to create jobs. Amongst the right it is that the free market is more efficient, therefore tax cuts and business friendly policies are the best framework.

The trouble with the free market is that if government uses private contractors, it does not absolve itself of risk, because private companies act primarily in the interests of shareholders and investors. And this can lead to some pretty nasty outcomes for employees and customers.

This week we have seen the unravelling of Carillion, one of the biggest construction firms in the UK. It holds numerous government construction contracts including the UK's high speed rail network expansion, HS2. I flagged this three years ago here as an example of government spending folly.

Carillion is massively in debt. The debt burden is so great that the future of the firm and around 20,000 UK jobs and a further 23,000 overseas jobs hang in the balance. It has a £900m debt pile and £600m shortfall on its pension plan.

It is just the latest in a long and sorry catalogue of failed businesses which are massively over borrowed to the point that even the smallest shortfalls in revenues compound over time to become catastrophic.

The biggest threat to jobs which we identified in Careermageddon is not technology. It’s not migrant workers. It’s not globalisation.

It’s debt. Personal debt, corporate debt, and government debt.

Whatever happens to Carillion, the debt spiral will be even more compounded – it won’t be written off, it will just move and spread elsewhere.

Which leads me to three simple conclusions. Government needs to take greater oversight of the debt vulnerability of firms it contracts with. Business needs to borrow less and invest more not in executive bonuses and shareholder dividends, but in long term assets and debt reduction. And people need to reduce their personal debt so they have greater financial resilience when disaster strikes.

It might not be fun, but if you want to make a worthwhile new year’s resolution, reducing debt is a much more worthwhile one than most that I have heard.